Six art pieces are back on display in Zimbabwe's main art gallery in the capital Harare, six years after they were stolen by a Polish national and smuggled out of the southern African country.
The artifacts, including two tribal face masks originally from Tanzania and four wooden headrests from the early 20th century, were recovered after the Polish man, believed to be in his mid-30s at the time of the theft, tried to sell them to an American art collector.
They were found only six months after the theft with the help of a museum security expert in Netherlands and U.S. law enforcement agents. However, the artifacts had been kept in the Zimbabwean Embassy in Germany until their return to the country on Oct. 3, Lilian Chaonwa, the National Gallery of Zimbabwe's conservation and collections manager, told Xinhua earlier this week.
The gallery, where the Polish man stole the treasurers from, held a ceremony last week to unveil the treasurers, which were meant to be sold at around 10,000 U.S. dollars each, said Chaonwa.
She said the Polish government informed them in 2007 that the man had been tried in Poland's courts and sentenced to an unspecified jail term.
The recovery of the pieces was made easy because the Gallery sent pictures of the artifacts to the Netherlands expert, who then forwarded them to his wide network of business colleagues including the FBI in Poland, she said.
Meanwhile, Chaonwa said the Gallery had since tightened security at its premises, as apparently, the Polish man took advantage of the lax security at the gallery.
Narrating how the theft took place, Chaonwa said the Polish national walked in like any other visitor and asked for specific original artifacts at the gallery.
He was carrying a slightly bigger bag which he was asked to leave at the reception, but he insisted that it contained his valuables and was allowed to carry it inside.
He was taken to the North Gallery which contains the Gallery's permanent collections. A staff member failed to keep a close watch at him and within minutes, the Polish national was seen by another staff member hurriedly leaving.
This promoted the suspicious staff member to check with his colleague in the North Gallery if everything was alright, upon which it was discovered that some art pieces were missing.
A search around the premises was launched and the man was spotted by a gallery staff member in town, but upon requesting people around to help him apprehend the man, he was in instead assaulted by those who thought he wanted to rob the Polish national.
This gave the Polish national a chance to run away and he was spotted getting into a taxi and that is how he vanished.
An alert to the police and immigration department did not yield anything until the Netherlands expert and FBIs were roped in.
"We have since incorporated technical gadgets such as the CCTV to complement our human security. We have also increased even our alertness, training programs and refresher courses," she said.
She labeled the theft a "misfortune" which happened "on the twinkle of an eye." Ever since the theft, the gallery had not recorded any theft of its artifacts, she said.
Chaonwa said the theft reinforced that Zimbabwe needed to safeguard its cultural heritage. Art theft was difficult to combat if local people were not made aware of the importance of cultural artifacts, she said, adding buyers for stolen African art appeared to be more in Europe than anywhere else in the world.
The six art pieces bring to fore memories of the return, from Germany in 2003, of a plinth of one of the Zimbabwe birds looted from Great Zimbabwe around 1890.
Most of Zimbabwe's eight symbolic stone birds were stolen during the colonial era and taken to South Africa and Germany but five of them were returned soon after the country's independence in 1981. Only one Zimbabwe stone bird never left the country.